Plasma Physics

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Plasmas, the fourth state of matter, are collections of freely moving charged particles (mainly electrons and ions) in which collective phenomena, such as waves, dominate the behavior of the system. Plasmas are essential to many high-technology applications. One example is fusion energy, for which the fuel is a high-temperature plasma. Low-temperature plasmas are used for a growing number of materials fabrication processes, including the formation of complex microscopic and nanoscopic patterns for microelectronic and micro-optical components, and the deposition of tribological, magnetic, optical, conducting, insulating, polymeric, and catalytic thin-films. Plasmas are also important for illumination, display technology, microwave generation, destruction of toxic wastes, lasers, spacecraft propulsion, astrophysics, and advanced-design accelerators for fundamental particle research.

Applications of plasma science and technology meld several traditional scientific and engineering specialties. The purpose of this program is to provide strong interdisciplinary support and training for graduate students working in these areas. The scope of interest includes fundamental studies of the plasmas, their interaction with surfaces and surroundings, and the technologies associated with their applications.

Academics and Research

The faculty responsible for the teaching program hold positions within the Department of Astrophysical Sciences. Recognizable on the list of faculty are many names associated with classic textbooks or research papers in the field of plasma physics. Students can pursue research with the teaching faculty, with associated faculty in other departments, or with any of the nearly one hundred scientists at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL). The Program in Plasma Physics emphasizes both basic physics and applications. There are opportunities for research projects in the physics of the very hot plasmas necessary for controlled fusion, as well as for projects in solar, magnetospheric and ionospheric physics, plasma processing, plasma devices, nonneutral plasmas, lasers, materials research, and in other emerging areas of plasma physics. With the field of fusion energy entering an exciting phase of burning plasma and technological implementation, increasing attention is paid to the practical engineering issues that will allow fusion reactors to become economically competitive.

Graduate students entering the Program in Plasma Physics spend the first two years in classroom study, acquiring a foundation in the many disciplines that make up plasma physics: classical and quantum mechanics, electricity and magnetism, fluid dynamics, hydrodynamics, atomic physics, applied mathematics, statistical mechanics, and kinetic theory. Courses offered in the program are taught by PPPL research staff who also comprise the Program in Plasma Physics faculty. The curriculum is supplemented by courses offered in other departments of the University and by a student-run seminar series in which PPPL physicists share their expertise and graduate students present their research.

In addition to formal class work, first- and second-year graduate students work directly with the research staff, have full access to laboratory and computer facilities, and learn firsthand the job of a research physicist. First-year students typically assist in experimental research areas, and second-year students usually undertake a theoretical research project. Students must take and pass the Physics Department's preliminary examination typically during their first year of study and the program's general examination during their second year of study. After passing the general exam, students concentrate on the research and writing of a doctoral thesis.


Students in the Program in Plasma Physics are not required to satisfy course requirements. Students are expected to take whatever courses they feel are necessary to prepare for the general examination or in accordance with research interests. In preparation for the physics department preliminary examination, some students take graduate-level courses offered by the Physics Department in the fall. Additionally, courses are usually taken with the Pass/D/Fail option, and there is no grade point average requirement for students in the program.

Pre-Generals Requirements(s):

The Department of Physics Preliminary Examination

All students must pass the preliminary examination given by the physics department. This exam is given over two days and contains material on mechanics, electricity and magnetism, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. Students typically take the exam in January of the first year, but a May examination is also offered. The Program in Plasma Physics organizes review sessions given by the second-year students in the fall to prepare the first-year students for the exam.

General Exam:

Generals are taken in May of the second year and consist of:

  • Two 4-hour written sessions
  • One 30-60 minute oral session

The professors on the examining committee for the oral session determine whether a student passes. Students prepare for the general examination by forming review groups and by taking graduate courses in plasma physics in their first two years.

Qualifying for the M.A.:

The Master of Arts (M.A.) degree is normally an incidental degree on the way to full Ph.D. candidacy and is earned after successfully passing (a) the written general examination, and (b) the physics preliminary examination. It may also be awarded to students who, for various reasons, leave the Ph.D. program, provided that these requirements have been met. 

Post-Generals Requirement(s):

Thesis Proposal

The thesis proposal takes place in the six months following the successful completion of the general examination. A completed thesis proposal consists of a written proposal, and a proposal presentation.

The thesis committee notifies the student of the results of the thesis proposal immediately following the proposal presentation.

Dissertation and FPO:

The Ph.D. is awarded after the candidate’s doctoral dissertation has been accepted and the final public oral examination sustained.

  • Application Fee: $90
  • Statement of Academic Purpose
  • Resume/Curriculum Vitae
  • Recommendation Letters
  • Transcripts
  • Fall Semester Grades
  • Prerequisite Tests
  • English Language Tests
  • GRE : General and physics subject tests.

For Ph.D. candidates, tuition and fees during a student’s regular period of enrollment are provided in full from a student’s graduate student financial support, in the form of tuition support from fellowships, assistantships, or external sources.

The annual stipend amount provided to Ph.D. candidates during their regular enrollment is intended to support a single graduate student based on estimated costs. Master’s students or students with spouses and/or dependents may require additional resources to support their living expenses 

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